We spent four days in Pittsburgh this month, not a lot of time to get to know a city well, but enough to get a strong sense of the place, and it felt very insular to me.
I’d be curious to see a poll of Americans who have visited at least a couple of our 30 largest metropolitan areas. I’d hazard a guess that, if they all listed the metro areas they’ve visited, Pittsburgh would be toward the bottom of the list. I’m also guessing that Pittsburghers, generally, don’t travel outside their area quite as much as others do.
I could be entirely wrong about this. For all I know, Pittsburgh might be among the most visited of cities and Pittsburghers could be among our most accomplished travelers.
And I suppose it would have to be weighted for the great distance separating places like Salt Lake City and Denver from other large cities, as they aren’t as close to other metro areas as most of the east is.
Still, culturally it feels isolated. Part of that sense is the geography of the place; western Pennsylvania is mountainous, with green ridges scored with pretty river valleys. It is gorgeous – one route into Pittsburgh is highway 22, the Penn Lincoln Parkway into the Fort Pitt tunnel through Mt. Washington, which opens out onto the three rivers panorama, including downtown Pittsburgh, as you take the Fort Pitt bridge into downtown.
I love the sense of history Pittsburgh has. We visited the Frick Art and Historical Center, touring the Frick’s home, Clayton, and the art museum, enjoying the various paintings and illustrations of the small, rugged 18th century settlement as it grew into an industrial power in the 19th century. (Great illustrations of the huge fire of 1845.)
I love walking around any city with pre-modern architecture, and the Steel City has a lot of ornate old office towers and tall red-brick architecture. There’s a strong sense of neighborhood; we visited the area around the University of Pittsburgh a couple times, including the Cathedral, Forbes Avenue, Carnegie-Mellon, and Squirrel Hill.
We even enjoyed a two-museums-in-one visit, going to the Carnegie’s art museum one morning and virtually having the galleries to ourselves, then having a great meal in their café, before going to the natural history museum and shuffling along with the crowds checking out one of the best dinosaur fossil displays in the world. (Some incredible complete skeletons.)
It’s not quite fair to draw conclusions, in that we were in the art museum soon after the 10 am opening and in the dinosaur exhibit in the afternoon, when the crowds are naturally larger – but it sure seemed that art took a backseat in the blue-collar burg to mesomorphic bones.
The Hall of Architecture is also worth mentioning – it was one of the unique surprises for us. Apparently, in the late 19th century (when Carnegie was amassing his collection) plaster casts of monumental architecture were still popular – a copy of a masterpiece considered better than a mediocre original.
So they copied facades of a cathedral and other monuments – and Carnegie retains one of the few large collections still extant, and the only one still under its original skylit setting. It’s cool to be able to walk around enjoying some of the most impressive sights of antiquity and the middle ages; most places no longer permit casts like this to be made.
Next post: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Falling Water